HELENA — The state Revenue Department will ask the 2015 Legislature to change the law to allow the sales prices of real estate to be publicly disclosed, Director Mike
Kadas told a legislative committee on Wednesday.
Past legislative sessions have rejected the idea, but Kadas pitched the idea that public disclosure of sales prices as a valuable tool for property owners to use when challenging the department’s valuations of their property.
Real estate sales prices are public now in 39 states and the District of Columbia. They are widely used by websites such as Zillow.com that show the values of real estate online.
“It’s very common to get that kind of information,” Kadas told the Legislature’s Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee. “The trend has been to allow transparency. It would be a huge service to the taxpayer.”
By gaining access to real estate sales prices, taxpayers would have an easier time challenging the value the Revenue Department placed on their homes during the statewide reappraisal every six months, Kadas said.
“I think it will help the department do a better job,” Kadas said. “We would actually welcome this. I think over the long time it would reduce the amount of time we spend on appeals.”
Under current Montana law, when someone buys real estate, a realty transfer certificate is completed that includes the sales price and name of the buyer.
The county clerk and recorder and the Revenue Department are required to keep that information confidential, blocking public access .
If homeowners challenge the department’s revaluation of their property, they can see the three or four comparable sales of similar homes that the agency used to come up with their new property value.
First, however, they must sign an oath pledging to keep the information confidential.
An unintended consequence of keeping sales prices confidential is to create an artificial monopoly on real estate and market information, Kadas said.
Realtors compile the MLS database, or Multiple Listing Services, with prices of all real estate sold by real estate agents.
However, that database is not open to the public. It also doesn’t include the prices of property sold by owners and not through real estate agents.
The Montana Association of Realtors has led the opposition in past sessions to making real estate sales prices public, c
iting the privacy of those buying and selling property.
Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, asked Kadas if a middle ground couldn’t be found. He suggested limiting access to the sales data to those appealing their property taxes and not making prices available to everyone.
Wittich said he is worried about people “gawking” to find out the sales prices on property sold by neighbors or friends just out of curiosity.
“This bill has failed so many sessions before, and it will fail again,” he said. “I would like to see it pass.”
Kadas said he’s open to discussions on a compromise, but said Wittich’s idea would add complexity.
Alan Peura, deputy Revenue Department director, said if legislators restrict the release of sales price data to those who appeal their property revaluations, “you’re inherently punishing everyone who doesn’t appeal.”
Sales trends are important for the public to know, not just those appealing their property values, he said.
“It’s not just the right to know, but the right to know the basis of your taxation,” Peura said.
“It’s not just the right to know for prurient reasons. It’s why you’re being taxed at what you’re being taxed on.”
In response, Wittich said, “Certainly my suggestion isn’t to punish. I want to provide an increment of disclosure to people who have come to you.”
Kadas said agency officials would take the legislators’ concerns to heart as they prepare a bill.